Monday, November 30, 2009


Werner Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS represents not just a triumph of a great European director over the cop film formula, but a triumph of drugs and the human spirit over the forces who've been playing them against each other for the last 70 years. With PORT OF CALL, Herzog raises the victory sign and lets the freaks know they can lay down their crack pipes and go home. In the face of maniacal Nicolas Cage, no locked-in-concrete reality stands a chance, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans.

When all the world is underwater, fishmen shall reign.

Herzog's great victory here is over his own Germanic fear of unheimliche abject dirt and devouring nature, a burden welded to an explorer's soul that hitherto has led him all over the world, his anxiety never more than a few paces behind. Herzog seems to have been born without a nesting instinct, or thick skin, and the combination signals the same amount of pain Cage's bad lieutenant endures from his injury and withdrawal symptoms; the same manic highs of crack are nice mirrors to the highs of art. It's a perfect synthesis of fearless maniac actor, the right material, and a maverick auteur who has done more than most to erase the line between fiction and documentary.

With its weird non-sequitur scenes and throwaway framing (plenty of smokestacks and gutted pier backgrounds) it could just be random quirkiness but it works because in the case of both Abel Ferrara's original and Herzog's 'sequel' we have fearless men making movies about fearlessness, the holy grail of masculinity. It takes guts to go off the rails at will, and not edit out the embarrassment later. These are films that keep their noses close to the pavement, like a bloodhound or drunk slowly waking up on a hot Sunday afternoon to the sound of concerned passers-by, or waking up on your own floor, instantly sniffing the carpet for that one lost chunk of coke from the night before.

A lot's been written about the reptiles in this film, particularly the alligator's eye view along the highway, low and mean, mirroring our own as viewers, sunk deeply into our cinematic darkness. You imagine that gators feel not much pain, but plenty of joy, like a kid allowed to crawl in the mud all day in the rain, biting anything he wants, the murky, wet freedom. Then again, that gator is perhaps mourning its mate, leg still twitching with its guts hanging out on an off ramp after colliding with a car. For Cage's cop, the world of New Orleans is a seething swamp and, like that mournful gator, he carries pain that makes his mud-crawling joy sorely earned. It helps of course that his badge gives him power over nearly every situation, a power he abuses copiously, but we're never really meant to feel sorry for those he oppresses, especially rock-smoking yuppies and his call girl girlfriend Eva Mendez's dopey johns. Her sleazy exploitation would be played up with lurid, evil music and leering close-ups in less capable hands. But like Abel Ferrara, Herzog is way beyond such petty morality. In both their worlds, the deep-end net between mere sick druggie sex stuff and actual murder is the only one our sympathies aren't meant to swim cross

The way our hero earns promotions via planting evidence, and makes cash blackmailing football players shows that while America still wrestles with its emotional dependence on big brother and its unrealistic appreciation for nature as some warm, cuddly benevolent force that needs our help to survive one more day in its little hutch, Herzog and Cage have beat the rap and found contentment in the dog-eat-dog world of corrupt nature. Herzog previously --in his documentaries at least--recoiled from that corruption as much as he embraced it. Anyone can find a cute bunny rabbit cuddly, but that's not nature. If you can find an alligator eating a rabbit to be cuddly, then come hang with Herzog... but not too close, because you're a sick person.

If you're familiar with Cage's oeuvre you will undoubtedly realize this role is something of a mid-career capstone. He even finds his way home to the nasal whine he adopted in his uncle Francis's time travel romance, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986). Lots of us back then who were in awe from him from BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and MOONSTRUCK (1987) thought to ourselves where the hell he picked up this ridiculous nasal vocal style? Shit was so good it became ridiculous in PEGGY, it was too much. Now we know how he got it, from all the crack he be smokin' in the future!

Lastly is the brilliant way the film brings in sobriety as an option. Going off to AA and leaving your druggie mate behind to drink alone is hazardous to any relationship, an instant point of cataclysm usually seen from the sober person view (28 DAYS, CLEAN AND SOBER), but Herzog would never dream of following the sober person and leaving the crazy druggie behind. When everyone else is slinking away as the abusive crackhead rants and froths at the mouth, Herzog walks boldly in with his camera and asks said crackhead about his dreams. Herzog would be a great "guide" on an acid trip. You can see him getting all up in a cop's face over his charge's right to eat the flowers in Central Park or to bite the heads off slow-footed squirrels. And that's how it should be, maybe, in a perfect world.

The only possible bid for moral high ground with a philosophy that Nietzschean is selflessness, the root of Cage's addiction (he hurt his back diving into a flooded prison to save a convict) but Herzog dispenses with showing us the moment of the actual injury or Cage's early days of dependence, i.e. his first week of, perhaps, trying to stick to his prescription regimen and be a good lieutenant. Did he do drugs ever before he got his back problem? Or is Herzog agreeing with the conservative notion that a prescription for Vicodin leads to heroin and crack like rain leads to mud? It don't matter, because we want Cage to be messed up, and there's a refreshing lack of cliche to the New Orleans aspect: no Hoodoo doctor, no fortune teller woman who gets killed by her own cat moments after revealing some arcane clue to Mickey Rourke. In fact, the grandma in PORT OF CALL gets a magnum pointed at her head for being "part of the problem!" In other words, Herzog is well aware that with medicine prolonging life until its far worn out its welcome they're bankrupting pensions funds and Social Security. It's not really hear fault, this old bat, but I do agree with him, even though I know it's morally wrong to think so. But that's the gist of the freedom at stake here. With no moral high ground to its name, Herzog's story is left to fend for itself. It takes a long way to get not very far, but it's a got a great serpent's tail-eating-style plot -- once the events sort themselves out, the whole thing disappears.

Lastly, Jesus Christ will they throw away that market research report that said ticket buyers respond strongest to recognizable faces brooding in the foreground on movie posters? Look at the one on the left and you see a poster inescapably similar to 80% of the movie posters out there. One face in front, second face to the right, possibly a third even smaller one to the left, shrouded in ominous  darkness, with a crime scene in HO scale at the bottom, like something you'd see at Blockbuster and not rent. Now go look at the gloriously pulpy poster Russia gets up top, and weep! Weep for the chickenshit nature of our America's cinematic marketers.

Here's my idea, take any script and roll a set of dice for each character to determine who should be male or female, which would then determine if they were gay or straight. So in any film any character's gender could switch. Why not let Fairuza Balk play the Bad Lieutenant next time? She could even have played Cage's part and even kept Eva Mendez as her girlfriend! Que caliente! The only film in which I've seen Balk really rip the roof off with a fully formed lead role was in 1996's under-appreciated THE CRAFT! Shit, son, that was almost 15 years ago! She's still hot enough to melt rocks without an oven or lucky lighter. Give this girl a seat at the table and chop her up some lines of cred! Que Guapa ella!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Great Acid Cinema #1: DAZED & CONFUSED (1993)

Yeah so what if they don't do acid in it? It's still great acid cinema, as in a good trip, since a joyous awareness of living suffuses it and, like any good trip, it starts in the late morning and ends at dawn of the following day, leaving our heroes driving into the sunrise cranking "Slow Ride / Take it Easy" on their drive to a nearby city to score concert tickets. Oh yeah, when you're young, sexy, high as hell, and surrounded by the cool, confident tribe of your choice, the world is a ball. It's hard to capture on film though, without coming off cocky or snide. Can Linklater really duplicate that rare ecstatic bliss of the moment onto film?

There's no comparing DAZED & CONFUSED to other nostalgic "day in the life" teen nostalgia-thons. It belongs in its own section, as far away from THE BREAKFAST CLUB as the original WOODSTOCK is from WOODSTOCK '98. I was a newly-laid teenager taking my first girlfriend to see BREAKFAST in the local cinema, and while it resonated it also skeeved me out. There was no place for me amidst these stock types - I was too cool to be a geek (I thought), to uncoordinated to be a jock, too sober to be a burnout. I needed rescuing, by the right tribe. It would be another year or two but it happened.

DAZED would have rescued me. For one thing it would have taught me that in order to be confident, drunk, coordinated and cooler, I needed to understand it was cool to embrace pot and understand its rightful place in the culture of these United States. It's the substance that exposes the fascism that passes for high school football and class separations between jocks, stoners and geeks. Anyone who gets high is suddenly cool: less violent, less self-righteously scared (stoner paranoia is quite different from all other paranoia). A better if lazier person all around. Linklater's film gets that, yet it also understands the positive aspects of apparently brutal ordeals like hazing as far as creating important rites of passage in a mythic sense. The transition of boys to men, girls to women, the ceremonial effect of physical trauma, and the way the entire senior class works harmoniously as one giant good cop/bad cop machine, the bullies creating a trauma which the nicer seniors then step into heal, and to extend the olive branch invite into the cool kid clique, relative to the stoicism with which the beating is endured. There's a sense of interconnected belonging in DAZED that you don't find much outside of Howard Hawks. If Howard Hawks was a teenage pothead in the 1970s, this is the film he'd have made, or wanted to make.

So casual it's almost unnoticed is the ingenious way that Linklater moves gradually from a larger school cast of characters in the opening scenes to just a couple kids by the end, the ones who got transformed, who made the change, who stayed up all night: the taunted junior league (incumbent HS freshman) pitcher who takes a licking from Ben Affleck and winds up in his first make-out session; the antsy Adam Goldberg who gets his first bruises, admiring them on the way home in the rear-view mirror; the stoner quarterback who decides to not sign his sobriety pledge even though it means missing all the senior year football glory. Each finds and endures their initiation into the unknown.

The coaches who enforce this pledge are brutish caricatures (ala Cloris Leachman's hubby in LAST PICTURE SHOW) but the rest of the adults are all seen as complexly benevolent, just pretending to be enemies of the teenager universe, understanding the need for these bizarre initiations, playing their parts as parents: the dad who stays home and scares away the stoners coming to the door expecting a party, like its reverse trick-or-treat; he lumbers out after them in his big Texan get-up like the new sheriff in town, only to let out a sly grin when they're out of sight; an irate local shoots at the kids for smashing his mailbox, but you know he won't call the cops on them. He doesn't even aim to hit - it's all a rite. These adults dig that it's their job to throw up many obstacles as they can in these kids' way, but to not make them too insurmountable, and to not get mad when every last one is hurtled or ignored on that last ditch blaze out of Dodge. Without the obstacles, there's nothing gained. It's a difficult thing to even notice in one's growing up (this is all based on true Linklater adventures).

While some coming-of-age films unconsciously advocate the status quo (John Hughes) and others outright challenge it (Jody Hill, Werner Herzog) there's also in-between pictures like DAZED, which do both and neither, thus actually offering a unique hybrid wherein high school stoner cliques become like indigenous tribes of old, with all the violent initiation rites of piercing, burying alive, scarring, masked dances, etc. having been transformed into wooden paddles and threats over loudspeakers, chases and inflictions of pain, all followed by welcoming and sympathy ("Heard you got it, pretty bad," a hot girl consoles the pitcher. "In my day it was much worse," says an older mentor type). The noble endurance of pain/trauma initiates a positive response in the community, triggering sympathy and connection, and a mounting loathing for the odious Affleck.

Men tried to recapture this in the 1980s by going out in the woods to bang on drums and whatnot via the "Men's Movement," but the pain of initiation was forgotten. It's neo-pagans with their tattooings, fight clubs and acts of defiance that are closest to true bonding. The pain of a tattoo or a fight (or the terrors of an acid trip) has permanence. It creates an event from which, in neurological terms, creates all sorts of new pathways and possibilities for change. People get tattoos at certain times to mark occasions. The paddling and grilling of football creates this same mark, so does overcoming the anxiety associated with your "first time" getting high, or making out, or riding with the big kids, or standing up to a shitheel even if it means you're going to lose.

The only film that matches it is OVER THE EDGE. If you've ever been "cool" or been giddily excited to be sitting in the back seat of some badass car getting high for the first time, in quiet awe of the older longhairs in the front seat, blasting hard rock and the feeling something dangerous could happen at any moment, and yet feeling oddly safe and secure, that's the vibe Linklater captures in DAZED. While OVER THE EDGE found our kid's dogged by the aptly named Sgt. Doberman, these kids don't fear cops so much as boredom, the future, emptiness. What they don't realize is that they've created a perfect social network, right there, a community in the strict sense of indigenous populations, of cultures centuries older than our own, who understood it was dancing, drugs and cool friends that made one whole, not expensive cars and financial prosperity.

I had trouble picking a number one for this list. If it was pure hallucinatory weirdness I was going to have Jodorowsky's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. OR EASY RIDER for the more straight-up influential counterculture, or 2001 for the arthouse. But ultimately none of those are really about us, man. Kubrick looks at man as just another form of intelligence on an endless journey of evolution discovering itself; EASY RIDER is ultimately more about condemnation than solution and Jodorowsky's endless penis/vagina humor and freaks-for-the-sake-of-freakiness gets wearisome after awhile, even when stoned out of your mind.

But DAZED leaves you on a full-blown contact high, full of that drunken giddy sense of possibility that comes from being newly free from parental curfews, open to the possibilities of the universe. We come away as happy as Mitch Kramer when he plops down into bed and puts on his big headphones to rock himself to sleep. Compare that to the up-against-the-wall headphone desperation of Carl in OVER THE EDGE and you can feel the healing. While most cool teen films spend their time pointing fingers and selling soap, DAZED AND CONFUSED whispers in your ear to meet you outside in five minutes, then drives you off to a place where you can be, as John Sebastian put it at Woodstock, "walking around this big beautiful green place, and not being afraid." When all the bullshit's cleared away through memory's uncloggable filter, that's what remains, that sense of "not being afraid" and being connected to everyone around you the way your chest is connected to your limbs, or as J. Sebastian later noted "You couldn't get one page of a book between me and that crowd" 

That's why we're here, to shrink the distance until it's less than one page between you and the crowd, and Linklater's the only one who's truly been able to capture it. DAZED & CONFUSED is the rare case of lightning actually staying in the bottle. Every time you watch it you get as high as the first. No other drug in the world can make that claim, nor group of friends, nor band, nor film. Just thinking about that awesome opening,  the orange 1970 GTO rolling slow into the school parking lot as "Sweet Emotion" pumps though the soundtrack--makes my mouth dry up, my spine tingle and my heart flutter with pre-trip-ticipation. It's our Valhalla. It's our Motorcycle Boy. It's our one shining moment.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Love Freezes THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941)

In the late 1930s, early 1940s horror was at a low ebb, what with the real horrors going on overseas, blah blah. Boris Karloff made six pictures in 1939, eight (!) in 1940.

And then in 1941, just THE DEVIL COMMANDS.

In 1942, he made just THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, largely because of being tied to the endlessly successful ARSENIC AND OLD LACE back east. With that play's old dark house crashes into Brooklyn comedic vibe, one could surely get a sense that typical Karloffian boogie men were fading under the glaring lamp of Nazism and industry fears the public was scared enough just wondering when the Japanese were coming. ARSENIC showed them the old monsters were now fun; after being scared by the newsreel, audiences found them cathartic.  The sense of losing one's place in the iconic understructure comes most to the fore in the much later TARGETS (1969). But, in THE DEVIL COMMANDS, Karloff taps into melancholic desperation of a million housewives and newlyweds terrified to open each new telegram. The public's fascination with hanging and life after death tied symbolically with the sense of suspended animation associated with the home front during wartime.  Memories of the first world war still fresh in the collective consciousness, the dread of being a parent of a solider or a war bride encompassed the fact that one could receive letters from the front, weeks after the writer's death, a voice from beyond the grave... mishmashed in the swamp of the collective unconscious alongside the suspended animation of newly minted young brides who'd enjoyed only a few hours of conjugal bliss before their husbands were shipped off to the front

The main storyline for DEVIL is A-typical for Karloff's films of the time, in which he played over and over a kindly scientist turned evil when his formula for bringing life to the dead is stolen by heinous gangsters to bring someone back from public excecution to smite those who falsely accused him, or ratted him out. Inevitably he winds up back from the grave to bump off his betrayers, one... by... one, or else sends his zombie slave do it. This was the more or less same plot for: BLACK FRIDAY, MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HANG, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and THE WALKING DEAD.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) appears at first to follow the trend of bringing back the dead (this time via radio) but manages along the way to invoke something darker and more interesting than the usual gangsters and nooses. Here they're swapped for a mysterious lady spiritualist, played with great depth and malice by Anne Revere.

As pioneering brain wave researcher Dr. Julian Blair, Karloff begins the film a cheerful family man and respected scientist, we see him say good-bye to his loving wife, Helen (Shirley Warde), before she leaves on an errand and is hit by a car, and though she appears in only a few scenes before her death, one still feels the warmth between them. The sense of connection and esteem for one another is palpable and touching, making Dr. Blair's subsequent, prolonged grief after her death something genuinely palpable. Eventually Blair's obsession with contacting Helen from beyond the grave via radio waves starts to be a real turn-off; he spooks his respected colleagues and doting daughter, Anne (Amanda Duff), and is eventually run out of town.

Setting up his equipment in a remote country house, still determined to use his brain wave recording technology to contact his wife "beyond the veil," Blair takes up with a manipulative spiritualist, Mrs. Walters (Revere), abandons his daughter and even helps Ms. Walters cover up the murder of his own maid, when the poor woman gets "too close" to their disturbing secret.

The big secret is a doozy: a gaggle of diving helmet-wearing corpses seated round the table in a combination Frankenstein laboratory and spiritualist seance, the perfect merging of science with the occult! To detail any more would be a sin, but suffice it to say that with Revere's sinister spiritualist, Karloff finds another excellent actress to work with. Where he generated great warmth with Warde, he generates conflicted remorse and determination with his wife's dark shadow, Ms. Walters.

It is to Dmytryk's credit that the film takes some time to let characters develop in both negative and positive directions. The fears of the general scientific community towards something beyond their understanding doesn't stem from a knee-jerk hostility to new ideas as such, but rather the worry that in opening the gate between this world and the next, we risk exposure to some demonic force beyond our power to control. Whereas most scientific communities in these films just snicker and deride, this attitude is at least open-minded and refreshing.

This deviation from simple religious and scientific dogma provides an unusually clear window into the era's fears; in 1941, the U.S. was still dealing with its isolationist stance with regard to the Second World War. Dr. Blair's fellow scientists don't mock him, being too respectful of his previous brain wave research, but they argue: "We don't know what evil may be lurking beyond that veil!" The dread here is less about death than about opening a telecommunications bridge to the afterlife, i.e. once we start messing in Europe's affairs, what's to stop Europe from messing in ours? Once we let the dead back in, what's to keep them out again?

It's a complex narrative for such a short running time (barely an hour) and without Karloff adding so much heart and sympathy it wouldn't be the little powerhouse it is. Revere is great, dark and oddly sexy as the unscrupulous Mrs. Walters, but her horror career never materialized (though the granddaughter of Paul Revere, she was blacklisted, along with Dmyrtryk!). Her performance here will intrigue classic horror devotees, for whom a new scary face is always welcome. In short, one goes into THE DEVIL COMMANDS for Karloff, one comes out with Karloff, and Ann Revere!

Go to FRANKENSTENIA for more Karloff Blogathon entries!

(Portions of this entry were originally written for popmatters in 2003)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Momentum Mori: TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934)

A crazy screwball masterpiece (for once all three of those words are stunningly apt), Howard Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY is a must-see regardless of its flaws, i.e. a kind of shrill fast-talking lack of sympathetic characters. PS - The title is because it is on the train, the 20th Century Limited, that runs from New York to Chicago (and thence on to LA, a kind of fast track between Broadway and Hollywood); hence it's not one of those historical odes to a simpler more morally repressive time that make you sleepy with all the trotted-out bonnets and high collars and quaint old aunt spinsters (which the name might otherwise evoke). This has John Barrymore as more or less himself, born under the sign of Sagittarius ("That's the Archer!!") harassing Carole Lombard, all night long, and her realizing they're both trapped within the confines of a frame that's both coffin and train car, a screen-shaped hall of mirrors trying to escape its frame and finally, in a supreme moment of triumph, ending up right back at the beginning. As the impresario of his own theater and turgid historical productions, Jaffe at least pursues the illusion they can escape the screen at any time, while Hawks looks upon such thoughts as a Hickey pipe dream and just makes maximum use of the space that's there before it constricts to a single dying light. The Dutch act, it's called, even suicide being just another dramatic posture. Theater is the only escape from death, but in TWENTIETH CENTURY, death is the only escape from theater, and always just one step ahead of the sheriff.

I mention the frilly old clothes because TWENTIETH CENTURY is one of the more self-reflexively psychedelic and modern of all the old pre-code comedies, while  the ponderous trappings of costume dramas, the sort of thing that gets the highbrow ladies out of their mansions, are clearly Jaffe's stock and trade (the first play he casts his starlet in has a character named 'Uncle Remus'); the film itself is kind of anti-Southern Gothic. It is awake and alert in the way it explores the nature of persona, of mask-wearing, of "Who am I this Time?"-style thespian identity melt-down and, how through this melt-down, one can begin to 'wake up' out of one's life, the way one wakes from a dream or is knocked from perfect communion with a film by the need to go to the bathroom.

Consider Barrymore's co-star: a young girl named Jane Alice Peters who changed her name to Carole Lombard, here playing a girl named Mildred Plotka who Jaffe gives the name Lilly Garland so she can play Mary Jo in Jaffe's latest southern Gothic melodrama, right there that's four masks stacked on the other like pancakes. "You're not Lilly Garland anymore," Jaffe coaches his terrified new protege, like she's been coasting on the wattage of that name for years when he just christened her with it not two minutes ago. "You're little Mary Joe. The scene is pure purple!"

A similar journey of identity and origin blows in the wake of this speeding screwball train. It's from a Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur script, adapted from Charles Millholand's play, Napoleon of Broadway, of which I profess to know little, except that its based on real Broadway tyrants and that Alec Baldwin played the Jaffe in a stage version a few years back but kept the name of the film. I do know Hecht is one of my writers. He wrote SCARFACE (1933) and NOTHING SACRED (1937) just for starters--too great comedies about death. Perhaps it was his years as a reporter and theater wit that left him witch such a rare ability to stare the void straight in the face and laugh, wryly. Or maybe it was just that he liked to write on trains (back when Broadway artistes like himself did ride the Twentieth Century Limited back and forth from New York to Chicago and/or Hollywood) and trains give one time to muse and reflect and notice the way one's dim reflection in the window rolling through endless wheat fields begins to look like a skull, and time and distance blur and you can drink all you want without worrying causing an accident or being picked up for vagrancy, and all rich with meaning so that if you keep your eyes unfocused, you can see Death there, waving, right outside your peripheral vision, blurring by in the fences and trees along the tracks, the way a director might wait right off the stage during a show, biding his time...

Death is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY. Oscar Jaffe threatens suicide (with sublime melodramatic flair) every time he starts to lose control of his actress or budget and the dialogue is choked with hilarious threats and insults, like "If he were dead and in his grave, I'd throw a rope around his neck and drag him on a Cook's tour!" But like some crazy shaman, Jaffe treads the lip between life and death in split second ham doses. Contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde with hands curled in pre-strangling mode one moment, lowering them them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest to meet a backer that wants to finance his play "from a religious angle" the next. In a split second after split second, Barrymore's whole soul morphs and erupts into entire plays worth of indelible moments bashed together in long single shot takes where Hawks just uses the edges of the image as the train dimensions and lets these cats with their tails tied together have at it. It's ham-shamanistic alchemy, and the  great, dark self-reflexive material brings out a full-on dose of Barrymore mania...kind of like what Robin Williams pulls off sporadically as the voice of the genie in ALADDIN or the TERMINATOR 2000 model dying in a molten pool of steel. A tale, ultimately, of a doomed impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, we wouldn't see a better locomotive-character/fearlessly self-depth-plumbing actor combo until Jon Voight's crazed escaped convict in RUNAWAY TRAIN.

It may be hard to believe for modern audiences, but Barrymore played romantic leads in silent films (he was known as the "Great Profile"), but with the coming of sound he was already "washed up," an alcoholic for whom coherence was a matter of some effort and little regard. CENTURY was amongst his post-code last gasps, proving he could definitely be counted on to play himself, a gentlemanly but hopeless drunk with sporadic moments of genius clarity peppered through his UNDER THE VOLCANO-like staring contests with the onrushing blackness.

He brought plenty of tragedy as the debauched, broke count wooing Greta Garbo in GRAND HOTEL (1932); was a believably mentally ill father returned from the asylum to re-connect with daughter Kate Hepburn in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932);  brokenhearted that Trilby doesn't love him as a hammy SVENGALI (1931); and like a gut-crushing portrait of me in the early 90s as a suicidal alcoholic movie star dealing with his much younger paramour named Paula in DINNER AT EIGHT (1933 - left). In all these, among his only good films of the sound era, he's alternately brilliant and unfocused, cordial and disoriented. In DINNER AT EIGHT in particular he's amazing, preparing his suicide with great formality only to emit this pained choked sob, just one, which he chokes back, for whatever ghost cameras happen to be around.

As Oscar Jaffe in TWENTIETH CENTURY however, he is transcendent, as if arising from his suicide hotel grave in DINNER AT EIGHT for one final phoenix expenditure. Imagine an alternative ending for SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), wherein Norma Desmond convinces DeMille to make Salome, bending reality to accommodate her grandiose self-image by, say, her playing both herself, Von Stroheim, William Holden, the dead chimp and even Billy Wilder in a frenzied audition, channeling the spirits of every Broadway and Hollywood has-been and vindicating their endless struggles against death, disease, age, and--worst of all--obscurity.

Good as that might be, Barrymore is better.

Then there's the light and shadow aspect of the film, deep shadows Hawks absorbed back in SCARFACE that allows the relatively cramped train sets to appear deeper than they are. At the end, after Jaffe's been shot and lies "dying" in the middle of his compartment the lights are dimmed for perfect mood and suddenly we too are swept up in the drama of it all. With everyone crying over the fallen Jaffe as he reaches into the approaching darkness for one last contract to get Lily to sign, you get the feeling that everyone is moving into a place of perfect freedom. In dramatizing death, we defeat it. With opened eyes you can see that these images from decades ago are alive; they know you are looking, watching, and so it is that our mind animates the world of other minds, like they've conjured a rip in the screen via this self-reflexive celebration of ham acting and the power of pretend death to grant eternal life. The darkness of an empty theater becomes reflected now in every depth-filled shadow. As the stickers the crazy backer spreads around the train read: Repent, for the time is at hand.

The other light Hecht counters with as a possibility throughout is of course, God - the Passion Play, the Patent Medicine King's stickers, even the pin Lily Oscar first poked her with is kept in a church-like box --the idea of fakery as a kind of avoidance of God and a "spiritual calling" is detailed throughout but is it either one or the momentum between the two, the fluidity of emotional change-overs exhibited by both of them compared to their one-note underlings sets them apart, in a higher frame -- "entitled to privileges."

Considering religion, the sanctity of the home and children as it whizzes through Illinois and Ohio on the way to New York, Hawks' film finds that the healthiest choice of all to live in a state of constant morbid obsession and histrionic ego, keeping reality forever at bay through constant play-acting, a kind of forward momentum mori.

Or maybe it's just that as a young Hawks devotee, TWENTIETH CENTURY blew my mind, my first post-modern art wake up call, the slap in the face of aesthetic arrest as actors seem to transcend the walls of the screen and compartments with lacerating self-awareness and Algonquin savagery. It was the first time the curtain pulled back for me and I realized that not only is all the world a stage, but every action and reaction blocked (with chalk) by some unseen guiding hand. Are we our own Oscar Jaffes, coming from a place far in our future, bedeviling our present time/space-anchored cast of selves with outrageous stage directions, or do we wish we were? Maybe that pin is in a churchy-looking box for a reason, because any suffering we endure in this world is for our own benefit, to access our lungs in a holy scream. When we finally do have 'the scare' of getting bad news from doctors over X-rays or C-scans, or get phone calls in the middle of the night about accidents, or lose jobs and girlfriends and apartments, all so God can get through to us, to puncture our illusion bubbles and put 'the fear of God' into us and scares our ego at last to silence. When our ego gets too titanic, God can't even get us on the phone. And so he breaks us down, gets that scream out, helps us stagger Broadway with it, and then the ego gets titanic all over again. There's just one way out, Lilly Garland! Let the psychedelic pistol shot of this movie to open up your mind and bid your ghost grab hold of Barrymore's coattails as he rides into the valley of the shadow of death at a mad gallop!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Psychedelic WebCinema! The THIRD AGE Begins

A plug for my friends of the THIRD AGE, a new webfilm series with some seriously warped psychedelic edges! It launches today... so get ready, set, setting, and click here

Friday, November 13, 2009

Acid's Greatest Horror #1: ANTICHRIST (2009)

My original conception of a #1 one horror acid movie has hovered between THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, THE WICKER MAN and HOUR OF THE WOLF. How awesome then, that Lars Von Trier's ANTICHRIST should come along and perfectly encompass all three, and work almost as a remake of POSSESSION besides?

Anyone who ever wondered what ZABRISKIE POINT would be like if done by David Lynch, and if he was a bigger fan of David Cronenberg and D.W. Griffith, would be wise to brave it. Don't let the frightened critics spook you just because there's some genital mutilation and shocking sexuality. You can handle it. If you're like me and a lifelong victim of anxiety and depression, then you'll really handle it. In fact, you'll dig into it so deep you may just decide to lie in it like a deep root coffin, hoping for your own Charlotte Gainsbourg to come fill the hole above you with comforting black dirt, while you wait for the comforting kiss of the conqueror worm!

Though a toddler figures into it, and some talking forest animals (!) this is a two person piece, which is fine when the people are Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg and the man behind the scenes is the public depressive Von Trier (and even the illiterate can relax since it's in English!) The story is simplicity itself: a pair of screwed up marrieds head to a cabin in the woods after their child dies, there to "face her fears" mainly because he doesn't want to sleep with her. Charlotte goes insane from grief and her man's constant self-righteous attempts to "cure" her crippling anxiety (he's a behavioral therapist). Along the way, ye olde link between psychiatry and witch burning is exhumed, but mainly the landscape warps and weaves just like its wont to do when one is... warped. If you've ever been on major psychedelic drugs in the woods and gotten lost and wound up having a six hour conversation with a tree root about your impending death by starvation and exposure, only to find out you've been sitting in the petrified remains of a half-eaten fox and--oh wait, it's just some leaves--and anyway you've only been outside two minutes, and you're just a yard from the house where your friends are inside laughing hysterically while watching WAY DOWN EAST, then you'll know why this movie rocks so bad!

It's always amazing to see how many apparently normal people think Von Trier (like Neil LaBute) is a misogynist just because he makes films that address misogyny. In his films misogyny is a warping factor in archetypal cinema-psychology, not just an unconsciously endorsed lifestyle ala every "rom-com." If you want a list of real misogynists in cinema, just look at: Michael Bay, Cameron Crowe, or the geniuses behind PORKY'S, LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN and/or any stupid sex comedy or most of the slasher films to come along in the early 1980s.

Can I venture to say that the label "misogyny" is in this context only a detriment if its clearly unconscious on the part of the director and the film is marred by a subtextual contempt/hostility for the feminine? Von Trier's film may be partially about the "misogynistic response" but it in no way condones that response, and in fact rejects it. Yet the same critics who hate ANTICHRIST undoubtedly are rejecting the right of femininity to show its true warts-and-all self, its ambiguity over desire and fear, creation and destruction. For many supposedly enlightened critics, to see this thing is to automatically have to throw a rock at it, like a snake in the woods. And yet, it's Von Trier that they then accuse of hating snakes.

Compare ANTICHRIST to a Michael Bay movie such as TRANSFORMERS, wherein the fear of the feminine means every chick in the film (the few) have to be stunningly gorgeous, in form-fitting slutty clothes, walking in slow motion to an Aerosmith song and men in the audience are encouraged to leer from the safety of the dark and their pack of dudes, or basements. This snarkiness stems from a fear of the "other" that hinges on the sociopathic. Since there's not enough access to full understanding of female oppression vs. the barrage of sensationalistic media that assaults the average American every day, it's not surprising a pampered/sheltered American auteur sees so shallowly into the murky waters of the female psyche. The film adaptation of Margaret Atwood's HANDMAID'S TALE (1990), by contrast, shows misogyny as a widespread institution, yet what feminist would dare accuse Margaret Atwood of misogyny? And the genital mutilation shown in ANTICHRIST is forced upon many girls--even today--as they reach puberty, so who is more a misogynist, Lars, or those who just ignore/deny the barbaric practices of some of our extremely fundamentalist Muslim brethren? To me, that act itself means war! We should invade, and rescue these girls before it's too late!

May I venture to take a page from the book of Camille Paglia and suggest that if someone is afraid to look head on into the wild devouring Dionysian oceanic dissolution represented by pure unleashed feminine sexual drive then it is they who are the misogynists, not the artists who at least have the cajones to face such a deluge? Women get knocked around in the films of Von Trier, Peckinpah, Polanski, Hitchcock, but they don't fall down. In a lot of more conventional movies women never even get to stand up. Those directors who--rather than wade into the vaginal sea-- just scoop out a handful of muck from off the bank and then parade it around on a stick, or wrap it in tight spandex and shoot it out of a wet t-shirt canon, then wait to film it after the threat has been "subdued", i.e. objectified, crashed, burned at the stake, and/or mangled --they are the enemies! Is there a difference between silicone and sawdust when it comes to Norman's mommy's smothering breasts?

Ding-dong the witch is dead, but when the witch in OZ melts it's no more a permanent defeat than it would be for Medusa losing a single snake of her hair. Norman knows this all too well; he must kill and display his trophies over and over again. Their hair keeps growing long after their bodies have withered to bone and parchment skin. Death not ends it, only castration... old Teiresius with his dugs, wandering off into the Led Zeppelin wasteland night.

But enough of my deftly Eliot-alluding tirade, I've gone way off-path; let's wander back to the wild of the woods, where there's Charlotte Gainsbourg--raw and feral--as a castrating lunatic, digging deep into warrens to hunt her smug, covertly gynocidal therapist husband...

Gainsbourg, even as a child showed, she gave not a crap about social taboo, just by being sired by reprobate Serge (they sang "Lemon Incest" together on her teen pop debut) and here she is, acting it up in a string of solid Gallic hits (and albums) and now this performance, which is the gutsiest, rawest thing I've seen since Isablle Adjani in POSSESSION or Isabelle Huppert in THE PIANO TEACHER, and if the Oscars had any chutzpah she'd win next March, but there you go, more proof who really is the misogynist here - c'est Oscar!!


If ANTICHRIST confuses thee even after this sterling review, forget about the last 40 years of cinema, and compare it to 1960s and late 1950s Freudian Gothics like SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF... You might also bring in Tarkovsky's SOLARIS and NOSTALGIA. Lastly, of course, you should compare it to IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES and every other good movie about castration. Aint nothing wrong with sparagmos and genital mutilation if it's done with clear-eyed awareness of the symbolic associations thereto, and by the mutilatee's own choice, not by some barbaric institutionalized misogyny. Second to lastly, dig up some moldy wet dirt-encrusted comparisons to the Japanese horror film, MATANGO and of course FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41.

In the end, just keep repeating "No sexual organs or appendages were harmed during the making of this movie." It's all a dream. All just stuff that transpires in that murky woods that exists between the unconscious symbolic and the ambiguity of the real, all just what the tree root says while you're outside, lost and tripping, a mere 20 feet from the front door. And if you're going / to San Fran / cisco / be sure to wear / some flowers in your hair... otherwise the loving people there will rip you to shreds and eat you alive, until all that's left is just a mouth, still screaming down the wind... for pusss-ay.
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